Why is Death gendered in "The Appointment in Samarra"?

In the tale "The Appointment in Samarra," Death appears to the servant as a woman, who frightens him enough that he leaves town. However, it is unclear whether Death appears to the servant's master as a woman. This is left to our interpretation. As such, we might query whether Death simply appears in a guise we will fear. Perhaps the servant knows that the figure is Death because she represents a woman he once wronged.

Expert Answers

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The speaker in the story is Death. We know that Death appears as a woman, but this only becomes clear halfway through the story when Death explains that the merchant has addressed her and demanded to know why she frightened his servant in the marketplace. The servant, we have earlier been told, had encountered a strange woman in the marketplace who frightened him, and the merchant clearly perceives that the person he is addressing is Death. But is Death actually a woman? Does she always appear as a woman? Does the merchant see a woman? The story is unclear on this point.

It is intriguing that Death, in the guise of a woman, was able to send a man fleeing by the use of purely a "threatening gesture." Men are generally physically stronger than women; why then should the servant be so frightened? We might argue that Death appears to the servant as a woman because this encapsulates something he is afraid of—perhaps he harbors guilt over infidelities or has been wronged by a woman in the past? Perhaps he recognized Death at once because she appeared in the form of a woman the servant knew to be dead?

Death is normally presented in literature as a man; this story makes us question whether Death simply approaches us in the guise we would most fear.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 13, 2021
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